Last week, the first book in the Harry Potter series—Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone—celebrated its 20th anniversary. At 504 million copies sold, Harry Potter and its author, J.K. Rowling, are recognizable as household names. While I usually don’t include Rowling foremost among my writing influences (those credits go respectively to Redwall, The Belgariad, and The Wheel of Time), her story certainly inspired me, and I think her books will long outlast many others.
I grew up alongside Harry and his friends. When I read Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone, I was 12 years old to Harry’s 11; when Goblet of Fire (book four) came out, both Harry and I were 14; and by the publication of the final volume, Deathly Hallows, I was 21 to Harry’s 17. This release of novels over time paralleled another series I started in my teens and finished in my 20’s: Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, which I began at 12 and finished at 26. A person changes a lot in that time period, and having one consistent thread—in this case, a story—tying together those phases of life is an incredible experience. Furthermore, one of Harry Potter’s more notable attributes is that the series matures as Harry does. My favorite installment is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for this very reason; prior to Goblet, the villain Voldemort is merely a bogeyman, a monster under the bed, somebody I’m told I should be afraid of, but can’t quite bring myself to believe in. By the end of Goblet, however, the gloves are absolutely off. Voldemort rules by fear. He tortures people. He murders people. And he’s back. The novel’s climax, where we witness Voldemort reborn in the graveyard, remains one of the most intense scenes in the entire series.
Harry Potter’s appeal extended to a broad demographic of readers—no easy feat for a book featuring witches, wizards, and magic. In 1997, fantasy was still a niche genre, but by 2007 it had become mainstream. This paradigm shift can be attributed to several factors (the financial success of the Lord of the Rings movies from 2001-2003 comes to mind), but Harry Potter and its popularity is certainly one of them. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what made the series so successful—practically all fantasies between 1980 and 2000 were wizard/sorcerer coming-of-age stories—but I think it had to do with the language: the cadence of the writing, something so subtle it goes unnoticed by most readers except to affect them on a subconscious level. Harry Potter is just readable from the first page—the sentences are clear and concise, the tone conversational, the dialogue entertaining. Also, the series is as much mystery as fantasy; most of the installments have a “whodunit” premise, and Rowling’s execution in that regard is fantastic. She plants questions into the reader’s head from the first page, giving just enough information to tease us onto the next chapter, the result being a book that is both easy to read and hard to put down.
Furthermore, and perhaps most important, Rowling does a masterful job conveying the themes of the series. A powerful theme is what transforms a good novel into a great novel, because that’s what sticks with us after the book is done, what leaves a lasting impression after we’ve turned the final page. And Harry Potter does this in spades. It has many themes—friendship, growing up, power, death, free will, prejudice, and more—but for me the one that resonates above the rest is given by Albus Dumbledore at the end of Goblet of Fire:
“Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good and kind and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort.”
Is there ever a more powerful lesson than this? That what is right and what is easy may not be the same thing? That doing the right thing can sometimes be hardest of all? This message has been woefully absent in fantasy literature of late—George R. R. Martin may have done some amazing things with A Song of Ice and Fire, but making a case for moral clarity is certainly not one of them. But this concept—doing the right thing in spite of all odds—is what makes fantasy literature. It’s why I love it, why I read it, and why I write it. These are tales about people in dark places at difficult times, about what they do with the choices they have in front of them. It’s about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but doing the right thing anyway. That’s what matters, when you get past the wands and dragons and magic swords.
So thanks, Jo Rowling. Thanks for sharing the tale of the Boy Who Lived, the boy with the scar, the boy in the cupboard under the stairs. It certainly was a wild ride, and I daresay many people have found their lives better because of it. I know I certainly did.